Home > Divrei Torah > Parashat Mattot/Mas’ei

Parashat Mattot/Mas’ei

July 14, 2009

By Jill Hackell

After 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, the Israelites are poised to cross the Jordan River, and to enter the Promised Land. In the previous parashah, Pinhas, a census of all individuals is taken, and Moses begins the transfer of authority to Joshua, who will lead the people in this next part of their history, the settlement of the Land, the grand finale to the Exodus from Egypt.

But, in our parashah, Mattot, the descendents of Reuben, and Gad look around, and see that the land east of the Jordan is perfect for their needs. They ask Moses, “Is it okay if we stay here to raise our cattle, rather than crossing the Jordan and being assigned land on the other side?” As Nehama Leibowitz points out, the ensuing interchange speaks volumes about the conflicting priorities of the tribes and of Moses. The Reubenites and Gaddites are obsessed with their livestock. “We have cattle, and this is cattle country . . . we will build sheepfolds for our livestock and towns for our children”. A midrash says that it is not that these tribes had so much more cattle than the other tribes, but that their priorities were such that they just spent more time thinking about their cattle. Their entire focus is on their material goods, their livelihood; all else, even their children, is of lesser importance, and this is reflected in their words.

Moses, on the other hand, is completely focused on the settlement of the Land which God has promised, and which he, himself, will never be able to enter. He immediately reacts to the request with enormous anger – seeing in this request a replay of the incident of the spies who would not enter the land – the spies whose reluctance to fight resulted in the 40 years of wandering that has kept Israel and Moses from the Promised Land. Given his perspective, his anger is understandable.

When the two tribes reassure Moses that it is not their intention to shirk their duty to help the others fight for the land, Moses is able to consider their request more rationally. But he puts into his concession to their request a lesson for them about their need to reorder their priorities. He tells them, okay – go and build towns for your children, and sheepfolds for your livestock – first children, then cattle. And he mentions God over and over again – six times in four verses – to remind them that life is not merely about earning a livelihood, or even about providing support for their fellow Israelites. God must be high on their priority list, reflected in their world view.

What about us? We aren’t like the Reubenites and Gaddites, are we? We would never build sheepfolds before we built towns for our children! But how often do we get caught up in the hustle and bustle at the office and arrive home late, after the kids are asleep? How often do we feel we have to check our blackberry each time it goes beep, even in the middle of dinner? There was a play last year, called “Distracted”, in which a child diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) had exactly that – a deficit of attention being paid to him by his family, who was always multi-tasking and responding to the demands of the moment, and never had time to listen to him with full attention.

And how often do we walk outside with our mind on our workday or on our finances, and fail to notice that the fireflies are out now, that the robin has built a nest on our porch, that the quality of the light on a late summer evening is beautiful beyond description, that God’s world is filled with wonders?

It’s all a matter of priorities.


Jill Hackell is a rabbinical student at AJR.